The Gone Man
Kady Standley had everything to live for. She died because I didn't do my job.
Kady was an up-and-coming singer who rocketed out of Altus, Oklahoma, to stand the Nashville country music establishment on its collective, conservative ear. With a voice that combined the raw power of Janis Joplin with the sweetness of Patsy Cline, her first album went gold in a little over six weeks. Albums two and three went platinum, and reached the Billboard Top 10 on both the C&W and pop charts. By the age of twenty-four, she was a genuine superstar who could write a check for a million dollars and never give a thought to whether it would clear.
My first and only encounter with Kady began on an unseasonably cool Monday afternoon in late May. I'd been retained by Bob Rubin, the A&R manager at Red Dot Records, to keep Kady on a short leash while she was in town to record some overdubs for her newest release. Any time I'm asked, I jump at the chance to take on bodyguard jobs for celebrities. They're a 24-7 gig, so they pay exceptionally well, and unless the assignment includes an event that's open to the public, I don't have to do much more than stand around soaking up Diet Cokes and hors d'oeuvres from the studio buffet table while the client sings the song, records the track, or shoots the scene.
When he called, Rubin sounded desperate, so I made noises about how I was busy and wasn't sure I had time to take on the assignment. In fact, my bank balance was bumping along on the bottom, and I took a chance that if I played hard to get for a bit, he'd sweeten the deal. It worked, and when he finally threw me an over-the-top number, I said I'd do it. Besides, the way he described it the job didn't sound too tough. No late-night parties, no meet-and-greets, no autograph sessions. Just keep Kady away from groupies, all-nighters, dope of all descriptions, and an occasional boyfriend and drug connection named R. J. McGraw.
Turned out, it was a more difficult job than either of us could have imagined.
I met Kady at the airport where she arrived, unescorted, on an American Airlines flight from Tulsa. To make sure I wouldn't miss her coming off the plane, Red Dot had sent me several publicity photos, plus complimentary copies of all three of her CD's, never mind that I didn't own a CD player.
"So, you're Gamble," she said, by way of greeting. "You really a private detective?"
"Just until I finish medical school," I told her. "Then I'm starting over as a brain surgeon."
She grinned at that. "Well, least you've got a sense of humor. You're going to need it."
On the way to baggage claim to collect her luggage, I took the opportunity to look her over. She was a tiny woman, no more than five feet tall in high-heeled suede boots. Except for her blood-red lipstick and fingernail polish, she was dressed entirely in black, including oversized Ray-Ban sunglasses and a floppy, wide-brimmed leather hat. She had a drop-dead figure, shoulder-length chestnut hair with a fire-engine red accent streak, and an I-don't-give-a-shit-what-you-think attitude that made you want to give her a high-five and a split lip all in the same motion.
She watched with barely disguised amusement as I struggled to shoehorn her three oversized suitcases and a guitar case into my geriatric Thunderbird.
"Jesus Christ," I said, slamming the trunk lid shut at last. "How long are you going to be here?"
"Couple days. Three at the most. I got a return flight on Thursday.
"And you need all this luggage?"
"A girl has to be prepared. You never know what might come up."
I didn't, but I was about to find out.
After we got on the expressway headed for downtown, she said, "How much are the assholes at Red Dot paying you to babysit me?"
"Fifteen hundred a day plus expenses, four days guaranteed," I told her.
"You work cheap," she said. "They tell you about McGraw?"
"The name came up, yeah." I was checking the rearview mirror frequently to make sure we hadn't picked up a carload of paparazzi leaving the airport.
"I'll bet. Did they tell you about the rest? That I was a doper and a nympho?"
"I don't recall those were the exact words, but yeah, that was pretty much the nut of it."
"Well, I guess they'd know. Every one of them silk-suited bastards has tried to stick his you-know-what into my mouth at least a half dozen times. If I let even half of 'em have their way, I'd be too worn out to hold a high note." She scrunched around in her seat and gave me a wicked grin.
"McGraw's gonna find me, you know. It makes no difference where you try to hide me out. If McGraw comes looking, and I guarantee he will, he'll find me. He always does."
"Then let's hope he brings a date for me, because if he turns up, I'll be all over both of you like a fat man at a Sunday brunch."
Her grin got even wider. "No need for extra talent. There's plenty of me to go around."
I had no doubt about that. After a quick stop at the Red Dot business office to go over the next day's schedule, we drove downtown and checked into adjoining, top-floor suites at the ultra-deluxe downtown Hermitage Hotel. While I kept her company, Kady spent the rest of the afternoon fiddling around with her phone, texting, Tweeting, checking out Tik Tok and YouTube videos, and shopping for clothes at several fast-fashion web sites. The country music business may be steeped in history and tradition, but Kady seemed perfectly at ease in the one-click economy.
That night, room service delivered up a dinner order that included barbecued rib tips, shrimp cocktails, crab legs, lobster claws, pink champagne, dark chocolate Dove Bars, mixed nuts, a bottle of Wild Turkey, six bottles of Stella, and a bucket of ice. When that was finished, we sat on the floor and smoked half an ounce of hash in a bong Kady said she had bought at an antique store in San Francisco. Afterward, with both of us stoned out of our minds, Kady strummed her guitar and sang me a string of her hits until we both fell asleep on the sofa. Wednesday afternoon, she finished her tracks, and Bob Rubin took Kady and me out for dinner and drinks at the most expensive restaurant in the city. Back at the hotel later that night, we started smoking the rest of her hash, and when I excused myself to go to the restroom, she added a pinch of heroin to the bowl, and left me conked out colder than a frozen catfish on the floor of her thousand-dollar a night hotel suite. That was the last time I saw her alive.
Friday morning, a couple of Second District Metro cops responding to an anonymous call found Kady and her guitar in a fifty-dollar tourist cabin out on Route 31. She had died from an overdose of fentanyl laced with heroin. At the inquest, the coroner ruled her death as accidental. But there was a complication. A note written in Kady's loopy hand said something idiotic about her and McGraw wanting to set their spirits free so they could be "joined together for all eternity." I found out later, it was the last lyric on the last cut of her final album. All very romantic, except that McGraw didn't stick around long enough to hold up his end of the deal, and neither he nor his eternal spirit were anywhere to be found.
I never did hear the final cut of that song, or any other song on her last album, but it wasn't important. What was important was that I had let her down, and in the worst possible way. My job was to keep her safe and alive during the time she was in my care, and I had failed utterly. I made up my mind there and then that I would make it up to her in the only way I could. No matter how long it took, I would find R. J. McGraw, and make sure he kept his promise to join his spirit with Kady's for all eternity.
That had been three weeks ago. I hadn't found McGraw, and I hadn't turned a lick of work since. I was beginning to think it wasn't a coincidence.
I sighed, and propped my feet up on top of my desk. For the thousandth time since Kady had died, I mentally kicked myself around the office, and not just because I was convinced it was costing me work. In the short time I had known Kady, I'd gotten to like her, never mind the dope, which I was not proud of, and which I did not mention to my lady friend, Maggie. Kady was a rebel who'd made her way to the absolute pinnacle in a competitive business not known for giving many breaks, and she had accomplished it on her own terms. If I'd done my job as well as she did hers, I could have put her on the plane back to Tulsa, where at least she might have died in her own bed.
The strange thing was, nobody at Red Dot seemed particularly upset over what had happened. The vice president I spoke with, who handed me my check as well as a fat bonus, told me Kady was a disaster waiting to happen. The company considered itself ahead of the game because I had kept her alive long enough to finish her album. Good thing, too, because as it turned out, it went straight to the top of the charts the first day it hit the stores.